Posts Tagged attitudes to self-publishing

The real schedule of a self-published book

A report of the Frankfurt Book Fair in The Hot Sheet caught my eye this week, and I have to admit it’s got me a trifle narked. See what you think.

‘The acceptance and progress of self-publishing (or, rather, the sluggish acceptance and progress) in most countries (the US, the UK, and Germany are the exceptions) was probably best represented by Guillaume Dervieux, vice president and CEO of France’s Albin Michel publishing house. He said that self-publishing is all but anathema to “what we are doing” in the trade. In self-publishing, he said, every manuscript “is accepted and each title is invested with the minimum amount of means. We do exactly the contrary. We reject a lot of manuscripts, and we concentrate all our means and effort only on the ones we choose with passion.” ‘

Oof. (Before we go any further, let me state that I find The Hot Sheet to be a useful, worthwhile round-up of news for authors. I’ve found several important opportunities because of it. They are reporting attitudes they have observed, not their own attitude to self-publishing. That’s why I included the paragraph in full.)

Back to Mr Dervieux. Here’s the point that worried me. In self-publishing, every manuscript “is accepted and each title is invested with the minimum amount of means”.

Here are some sows, with ears.

There are many authors (indie and otherwise) who’ve sought my editorial input on a book and been sent back to the drawing board – kindly, with constructive directions. That’s what they hire me for. Some of them come back with a greatly improved script.

Anyone who’s hung around this blog will know that I frequently post about the long process of getting a manuscript right. The time taken to edit for nuance. You’ve also heard me plead for writers not to rush because we can set our own deadlines, and that is our great artistic advantage, if we want it. A book will be out for ever, and although we can nip into the back channels and edit the snarlies, we can’t edit a reader’s memory of a bad experience.

But here’s something I’ve never talked about – the care that then goes into the editorial and production process – which I think is one of Mr Dervieux’s contentions.

So, by way of example, let me take you through the editorial process for my latest book, Not Quite Lost.

For reference, Not Quite Lost is about 38,000 words.

  • Rewriting/developmental editing December 2016 to April 2017
  • First beta reader April 2017
  • More drafting, second beta reading, start of June 2017
  • More drafting, third reading, end of June 2017
  • Final drafting
  • Copy editing, proofing and formatting to August 2017

In parallel with this, the cover was being developed. Work on that began in January 2017. Three full designs were considered and discussed with close advisers. The final design emerged in July 2017.

And no publishing job has been done properly unless there is marketing and publicity. Preliminary work on that began in May, with 3 weeks of campaigning in August, and work is still ongoing as leads arise.

To recap, the production calendar looked like this:

  • Conceptual and developmental editing from first draft to final manuscript 7 months
  • Proofing & formatting 2 months
  • Cover development 7 months
  • Marketing/publicity 4 weeks concentrated work, then as needed

Of course, these months weren’t exclusively spent on the one task. I was doing other work in between, just as a traditional publisher would. And the breaks allowed time for new ideas to present, minds to be refreshed and new possibilities to be considered.

This is not the schedule of a book that was ‘invested with the minimum amount’, either financially or in terms of time. Indeed, I’ll wager my book had more care than it would get in a traditional publishing house. How do I know this? Because I’ve worked for them as well. Here’s a post that discusses some of the quality compromises I’ve seen in traditional publishers.

I’m heartened that Mr Dervieux chooses his projects carefully and invests each one with utmost effort. I would hope for nothing less. I hope it’s clear that I, a self-publisher, take just as much care.

Here are those pigs again.

What of Mr Dervieux’s first point, that plenty of self-publishers put sows’ ears in the sewing machine? Bien. Before I decided Not Quite Lost was fit to publish, I tried to find people to talk me out of it. Like a publisher with their editorial board. The story of that is here. And were they right to let me go ahead? The reviews can do the talking.

I realise this post has become a little ratty.

Apols, people, but Mr Dervieux’s generalisation is wildly unfair. It’s as bad as dismissing all of traditional publishing as ghostwritten celeb books or Dan Brown trudge with copycat covers and slapdash editing. Yes, of course, everyone’s mileage varies, and anyone and everyone can self-publish. Yes, self-publishing is done by amateurs. It’s also done by responsible, professional authors who nurture a book properly and take care in its production to create a book that’s worth a reader’s time.

Some of us would say that’s what it’s all about.  

Thanks for the ratty, Mrs Airwolfhound on Flickr

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Man Booker, it’s time to open up literary prizes to self-published authors

It’s not my policy to run press releases, as this blog is my personal writing and publishing adventures. But this is a campaign I’m proud to get behind, and I think it will strike a chord with a few of you guys too.

Today, the winner of the Man Booker is announced, and Orna Ross (left), founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors, has issued an official plea to literary prize organisers everywhere: it’s time to open prizes to the quality work being produced by self-published authors.

Here’s Orna:

‘As so many authors are now producing work of creative and commercial merit, a prize that fails to include author-published work is deficient: unrepresentative in a way that seems incompatible with the prize sponsors’ commitment to diversity and inclusion. We strongly urge the Man Booker Prize to find ways to include self-publishing writers in their programme.’

(You might also recognise Orna as past guest on The Undercover Soundtrack, advocate of slow writing and my co-collaborator in the Women Writing Women box set.)

Of course, including self-publishers in established literary awards produces practical difficulties. We know; we know. I’ve suggested my own solutions to them here – the post is intended for reviewers but the issues similar to those faced by awards organisers – the volume of entries, the variable quality. And it’s useful to understand the reasons that perfectly ‘publishable’ authors choose the indie route – a positive choice, not the last resort of a second-rate writer. Ouch. It hurt to write that.

Orna is well aware of the difficulties of such a change, and she also has solutions:

‘We recognise that there are challenges in doing so and The Alliance of Independent Authors has issued a guide to help those organisations that are sincere in ensuring that the best books, regardless of the means of production, are brought before their judges and committees. The Alliance runs an ongoing campaign, Opening Up To Indie Authors, which advocates for the opening of all book prizes – and other parts of the books industry – to self-publishing authors.’

 

For me, this is what it’s all about – rewarding the best books, regardless of the means of production. This should be said boldly and loudly.

And so I’m spreading the word as much as I can. Who’s with me?

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A plea for reviewers – can we open up a dialogue about self-published books?

So I find a lovely-looking review blog. The posts are thoughtful, fair and seriously considered. I look up the review policy and … it says ‘no self-published books’.

Today I want to open a dialogue with reviewers. If you have that policy, might you be persuaded to change it? Or to approach the problem in a different way?

I used the word ‘problem’. Because I appreciate – very well – that in making this policy you are trying to tackle a major problem. Your time as a reviewer is precious – and let me say your efforts are enormously appreciated by readers and authors alike. You get pitches for many more books than you can read and you need a way to fillet out the ones that are seriously worth your reading hours. A blanket ban is a way to fend off a lot of substandard material and save you many unpleasant conversations. And traditional publishing implies a certain benchmark of competence.

Competence. That’s probably the heart of the matter. There are good self-published books, of course, but how can I help you sort them from the bad and the fug-ugly?

Most people would probably tell you to look at the presentation – whether the cover and interior look professional, and the blurb looks authoritative and slick. But to be blunt, pigs can be well disguised by the right kind of lipstick. Still thinking in pig, a good sausage and a bad sausage look mostly the same on the outside.

No, instead, I urge you to do this. Look at the author.

The author

Consider the following:

  • What experience do they have of publishing? Do they know how much meticulous polishing a book should have? Have they already been traditionally published, and learned what it takes?
  • Do they give the impression that they are wise and competent enough to make responsible publishing decisions?
  • Look at their online persona – do you think they’d act on professional feedback, and would they have the self-discipline and pride to give the book another revision if a pro told them it wasn’t yet ready?

Underbaked books

Yes, it has to be admitted that some books are published too early. A release date is decided, and sometimes there is no time for the author to do a rewrite, even if the manuscript badly needs it. The editorial people do the best they can in the time available, tidying up the typos and inconsistencies – or sometimes they don’t even have time for that. I’ve been involved with books like this – and industry friends have too.

Sounds like a ghastly compromise, doesn’t it? And do you know, the examples I have in mind are not self-published books. They’re books produced by traditional publishing houses. I promise on my honour, this happens and it’s not even uncommon.

Manuscripts that have already been published in hardback often get another proof-read before they release in paperback – and all manner of unholy errors come to light. Not just the odd typo, but fundamental goofs with credibility and consistency. And major craft issues like head-hopping. I can’t count the number of published books – yea, even those from trad houses – where the author hasn’t grasped point of view. When characters start talking about things they can’t possibly know, it can slap a reader right out of the story.

So it’s not safe to assume that a trad published book has superior quality control.

But, you might ask, who is doing the quality control on an indie author’s book? Well, the trad houses use freelances – freelances who are also now working with indie authors. It’s the editors who guide the book, line by line, into a publishable shape – so indie authors who use them are getting exactly the same degree of professional stewardship as authors who are published by an established imprint. And, if they’ve been sensible with their schedules, these authors might be able to use the editor’s contribution more fully. (Here’s a post where I give advice on how to build in time to use your editorial experts properly.)

But all the good authors get book deals, don’t they?

No. They don’t. A book deal isn’t like an academic qualification – you hit the standard, you get the badge. That’s one of publishing’s biggest myths. Here’s the reality – a book deal is awarded to writers whose work fits current marketing needs. Big, big difference. Here’s a unicorn.

Thank you, Catherine on Flickr

Let me tell you a story to illustrate what it’s really like. I have a friend who’s a senior editor at one of the Big 5. A decade ago she published a set of novels that were well reviewed, got a five-figure advance – the full fanfare. She’s now come out with a new novel, which has seriously impressed an agent. But.

What’s the but? The market has moved on and isn’t looking for books like hers. On its own terms – as a reading experience – the book is her best ever. Her old fans would probably love it too. Her original books are still finding a steady trickle of new readers. She’s made the grade, dammit, but that book does not fit today’s market.

And what’s she doing? She’s seeking my advice on self-publishing. As is another friend who got his original publishing deal by winning a national award, and then went on to publish 10 highly acclaimed novels.

These are some of the people who are self-publishing. Senior figures in the industry. Prizewinning authors. People of solid publishing pedigree. And they’re probably even better authors than when they started because they’ve grown as writers and people. Other kinds of people who self-publish responsibly include authors who’ve begun under contract and then continued as self-publishers; authors who have released their books once they went out of print; authors who’ve published in very commercial areas but would like to publish with more creative control – me, for instance, but I’m not alone. Purely as an example, here’s my story.

Some book deals are unacceptable to authors

Even if an author ticks the marketing boxes, they might prefer not to accept a deal. Not just because of money or royalty rates, but because of other clauses that have long-term consequences. Two that particularly deserve attention are rights grabs and reversion clauses. Here’s a shark.

Two technical terms
What’s a rights grab? A book contract is a grant of the right to publish in a particular format. A book could be published in many formats or ‘products’ – an ebook, a print book, an audiobook, a movie script, a TV adaptation, an interactive app, a workbook. And it could be all these, multiple times, in all languages (translation rights) and other English speaking territories (England, US, Australia etc). A rights grab usually tries to get as many of these in one deal without paying extra for them. If the author sold them separately elsewhere, they would usually get a better deal. Publishers are usually not keen on this.

What’s a reversion clause? A book doesn’t have to ‘belong’ to a publisher for life. Indeed, a book often goes out of print, which means the author could then take it back and find a new publisher for it, or publish it themselves. So contracts should have a reversion clause – but if the terms of this aren’t fair, that book might completely disappear. For many authors who are building a body of work, that’s simply not acceptable.

Sometimes, a publishing deal doesn’t make business sense to the author, even with the kudos.

Dealing directly with authors

Now this is tricky. If you review traditionally published books, you might deal with third parties – publicity departments or services such as NetGalley. If you don’t like a book or choose not to review it, you don’t have to explain or justify anything to the sensitive person who wrote it. But indie authors might contact you directly, and it could get difficult.

So here’s a plea to authors. If a reviewer has agreed to look at your book, send it and then … forget about it. Don’t hassle to see whether it’s being read or when the review will be published. In the publishing ecosystem, far more copies get sent out than are reviewed. They slip through the net for all sorts of reasons, many of them unrelated to the book itself. Don’t hound a reviewer to give you feedback. Fire, forget and move on.

The author as creative director

We are in an age where more authors will be their own creative directors – for artistic reasons and financial ones (we haven’t even mentioned creative control, but that’s another factor for committed authors with their eye on the long game). A lot of the new, important voices will come up through self-publishing because traditional publishing will have to play safer and safer. And a lot more of your favourite authors will be continuing their body of work by self-publishing.

So if an author can prove they have the necessary maturity and wisdom, would you give them a try?

A few more things to chew over.

Here’s a post about highly commercial publishing and creative control.

Just to confuse matters even more, here’s how the boundaries between traditional publishing and self-publishing are blurring.

And here’s a post about how we’ve – thankfully – moved on from the bad old days of ‘vanity publishing’.

I’d like to take this debate forward in a helpful way. Book bloggers and reviewers, you set your policies for thoroughly sound reasons. Would you share them here? If you accept indies, how do you make this work? And if you don’t, what are your concerns? I’d like to understand them. What would you need to know about a self-published author to consider one of their books?

What am I working on at the moment? My latest newsletter

 

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